|Goal ||Description ||Completed? |
|A ||Run Under 5 Hours (6:00/mile pace) ||No |
|B ||Set a course record (5:30) + $1500 ||Yes |
|Mile ||Time |
|1 ||5:57 |
|2 ||5:48 |
|3 ||5:49 |
|4 ||5:49 |
|5 ||5:51 |
|6 ||5:49 |
|7 ||5:52 |
|8 ||5:49 |
|9 ||5:50 |
|10 ||5:46 |
|11 ||5:46 |
|12 ||5:51 |
|13 ||5:55 |
|14 ||5:47 |
|15 ||5:48 |
|16 ||5:49 |
|17 ||5:47 |
|18 ||5:46 |
|19 ||5:48 |
|20 ||5:47 |
|21 ||5:50 |
|22 ||5:49 |
|23 ||5:48 |
|24 ||5:47 |
|25 ||5:45 |
|26 ||5:44 |
|27 ||5:47 |
|28 ||5:52 |
|29 ||5:46 |
|30 ||5:51 |
|31 ||5:54 |
|32 ||5:53 |
|33 ||6:02 |
|34 ||6:08 |
|35 ||6:11 |
|36 ||6:34 |
|37 ||6:07 |
|38 ||6:12 |
|39 ||6:20 |
|40 ||6:30 |
|41 ||6:44 |
|42 ||6:44 |
|43 ||6:23 |
|44 ||6:29 |
|45 ||6:23 |
|46 ||6:32 |
|47 ||6:41 |
|48 ||6:33 |
|49 ||6:33 |
|50 ||6:27 |
In some ways, I’ve been training for this race since the Olympic Trials in February. I went into the Trials with good fitness but feeling far from ideal. While I had a great training cycle over the winter, I picked up a nagging hip flexor issue the last couple weeks leading into the race. I didn’t tell anyone (what would it accomplish other than worry friends/family who travelled to watch?), and I walked around the hotel race week trying my best not to limp.
While I was able to hold it together enough for an ok race at the Trials, I took some serious down time after to get everything healed up. Once this down time was coming to an end, it was obvious the world had changed and the fall racing season was in peril. So, with no road racing or marathons the horizon, my coach and I decided to take the opportunity to get in a summer ultra training cycle. I know it’s the direction I want to take in the sport, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to start dipping my toes in the water.
Over the summer I ran decently high mileage, one workout a week, and a long long run every third week. I cycled up to a 30 miler at 5:58 pace and a 33 miler at 6:05 pace. My summer was capped with an insanely difficult 50 mile trail loop (complete with a mile of wading through a creek and scrambling off-trail up cliff faces) through Red River Gorge on the hottest day of the year. While it wasn’t a “race,” I really wanted a hard effort to finish out my summer ultra training cycle.
After taking a short amount of down time following my summer cycle, my coach and I set our sights on Tunnel Hill 50. It had not been officially cancelled or postponed, so we figured the worst case scenario would be that I got another good ultra cycle in while training for it. I had read Jason Koop’s “Training Essentials For Ultrarunning” book and passed it along to my coach. As a 2:12 guy from the 80’s, he has a lot of experience with training high-level marathoners. Tackling a 50 with such aggressive goals, though, was another nut to crack all together. We both looked to the book for some guidance on how to approach it.
For those of us who come from a traditional track/cross country/road racing background, there isn’t a ton of ground-breaking info in the book. However, the one thing that did stick with me was the notion that for ultras, the periodization of training systems can reasonably be flipped on its head vs. a “normal” cycle of “base building -> threshold work -> VO2 max work -> peak/taper -> race.”
Every system is important for every race (even a 100 miler), but the sharpness of your VO2 max is way less important in a 50 mile race vs. a 5k race. So, we took Koop’s notion of training the “least specific physiology first” in a cycle, which for a 50 miler meant VO2 work. For the first time in 4 years, I cut mileage and was hitting the track 2 times per week working the mile/5k systems wholeheartedly. I capped the cycle with the hope of running a mile PR (4:19 from senior year of high school in 2012), but came up just short by running a solo 4:22. With the right race I was certainly in PR mile shape (not that I’ve ever been much of a miler).
From there, I took a week to readjust to higher mileage and then worked into my 8-week block of specific work for the 50 miler. I ran 2 “shorter” long runs per week of anything from 15-20 miles and a longer long run on the weekend. Most all long runs were base 6-minute pace with anything from 4-10 miles of 5:30 (between marathon and goal 50 pace) type running interspersed. I took easy days very easy, but the frequent cadence of the long runs kept me appropriately fatigued. Over the weeks, I adapted to the stress really well and was knocking out 3 runs per week that, in marathon cycles past, I would have been happy to finish any single one of per week. I may experiment with this “top-down” training strategy for a future marathon cycle. I was firing on all cylinders and felt like my fitness was only a few weeks of fine-tuning away from being in 2:16/17 marathon shape. It was a very fun training cycle and I got both super fit and super confident. My biggest mistake was mistiming my longest long run. I ran a 32 miler on gravel at 6:10 pace 4 weeks out, but think I would have been better off running a bit longer 5 weeks out.
My only other error is that I think I pushed a bit hard leading into the final weeks and flew a bit close to the sun, so I had to really hit the taper hard to get my legs back under me. The last couple weeks were a mind game of knowing I was fit and trusting that feeling “good” would come back in time for race day.
For as long as I had been training for this race, I had been thinking of it as a solo time trial effort. For that reason I was a little thrown off to learn there was another runner in the race, Anthony, eyeing 5 hours as well. At the end of the day, though, I knew that running the fastest 50 miler I could required that I run my own race. If we ran together, great. If not, no harm no foul.
Our 10-person wave went off at 8:10 AM. We circled the parking lot and headed to the trail. It became apparent almost immediately that the cadence I was setting was faster than what Anthony was looking to do. I kept a close eye on my watch and the physical mile markers the first few miles to find the right rhythm. I always tried to find the fastest line of the trail with the least amount of loose crushed limestone underfoot.
I settled into a rhythm that was a bit faster than intended (about 5:48-50 per mile), but things were flowing really well there. While I knew that I was toying with world record pace and that doing so was fool-hardy, I felt so comfortable at the rhythm I’d found that I didn’t really want to readjust. I began passing 100 mile runners from earlier waves and giving them a wide berth as I went by. The trail is long and flat with long lines of sights, so It was nice to have “targets” to chase in an otherwise solo endeavor. Everyone I passed was super supportive and happy to be there. I even knew of a few people running out of Louisivlle who I was keeping an eye out for. I took one Gu and periodically sipped the water from my handheld the first stretch. I wanted to start the nutrition intake as early as possible.
Mile 5.5 was the first time I saw my crew and was able to swap out my bottle. I planned to rotate between water and SWORD sports drink between every aid station and take in at least one Gu/Maurten Hydrogel as well. I’d done the math out to keep my total caloric intake around 250 calories/hour. Much less and I’d be underfuled. Much more and my body wouldn’t be able to process the sugars and may lead to GI issues.
My crew consisted of Sam and Dustin (who were the MVP’s of my Strolling Jim race last year) and my mom and aunt (loving referred to as my “managers”). Looking forward to seeing their (masked) faces would turn out to be how I mentally broke down the sections of this race. It’s way easier to think that I’ll get to see them and get a bottle refresh in a mere 5 miles vs. “I still have 45 miles to run.”
After taking my new bottle, I continued to click along comfortably and hit the 10 mile mark in 58:25. I knew I’d probably run a positive split no matter what I did, so I wasn’t upset about banking some time under 5 hour pace while the going was good. My crew met me again at 10.9 and I swapped my bottle once again. From there I just had a short 2.5 mile section out to the Wetland Center turnaround at mile 13.4.
Near the Wetland Center turnaround, there was a very short section of the course that was actually paved, and I immediately felt myself speed up on the faster surface. There’s some debate about how much slower the crushed limestone Tunnel Hill surface is vs. a paved course. Camille Herron (who set the 100 mile WR here in 2017) estimates 10-15 seconds/mile based on HR data. While I wouldn’t estimate it as quite that much, the crushed limestone is definitely slower than a paved course would be. However, there is tremendous benefit to running so far on a more forgiving surface.
As I hit the turnaround, I glanced at my watch to get a feel for how far back Anthony was. I was still trying to just run my own race, but the knowledge he was lurking back there was certainly in the back of my mind. A mere 20 seconds after I hit the turnaround, Anthony passed me going the other direction, meaning I only had a 40 second lead on him. We waved to each other and I tried to give the impression of supreme confidence, but I was secretly a little freaked out that he was so close behind me. I felt like I had been running well and clicking along nicely (nearly WR pace for God’s sake!) and yet he was still right THERE. I didn’t intentionally do it, but my instinctive reaction (honed from years of racing) was to press just the slightest bit harder to hopefully build some more daylight between us.
Thus began a 7 mile tear below 5:50 pace which, even as I did it, I knew was foolhardy. I still felt good, though, and quickly naturally locked into this new rhythm that I seemed unable to break. This is a habit I’ve developed in my years on the road. It’s useful in some circumstances and races, but it’s something that I’m going to have to learn to break as I move more into ultras. The world of ultra racing requires a little finer control in doling out energy and effort across the hours.
I knew I was already running a little too fast and was surprised to see someone still so close behind me. So, I ended up running even faster. In retrospect, my reaction to the situation was fairly counter-intuitive, and I should have known better. Camille Heron described the way I attacked the race as “fearless” on Twitter. In reality, the way I attacked the race was moderately fueled by fear. Maybe in a round-about way, I was fueled by fear to act fearlessly. However you look at it, the net result was the same - I was cooking and had over 30 miles to run. I began to feel the first tendrils of fatigue in my legs around the 18 mile mark.
I got my mind and emotions more under control by the 20 mile mark. Even if Anthony was coming back, he’d have to be running insane 5:35-40’s to make up the time. At 21.4, I threw my gloves, swapped my bottle, and grabbed my sunglasses from my crew. For a brief moment, the cool, overcast morning gave way to sunny, slightly warmer than ideal weather. I knew I was running well and while I wasn’t running off fear anymore, my body was still stubbornly locked into a rhythm that I knew was just a hair too quick. I didn’t give it a ton of thought, though, and just focused on putting the miles behind me.
I celebrated hitting mile 24 because for the first time I allowed myself to think of how much I had left rather than how far I had already come - I only had a marathon left to run, which I’ve done in training many times. I celebrated mile 25 because it marked halfway. I celebrated coming through the marathon split in 2:32 and some change, because a marathon split is always fun to check.
My crew next saw me at 26.6 miles. I let them know my marathon split and swapped my bottles again. The next time I got to see them was only 2.8 miles up the road, just before mile 30. I knew this upcoming section would be the last easy section of running. After the 30 mile mark is a long, lonely 7 mile stretch of running that gains over 300 feet of elevation. After swapping my bottle again at 29.4 (and watching Sam play with a dog so that he wouldn’t run into the trail and trip me), I mentally buckled in for a long, miserable block of the race. I was tired but still moving ok. I’d yet to have a mile over 6 minutes, but I was very aware that things were about to get very hard very fast.
I was surprised at how things held together through mile 31. Subtly, though, I could tell I was slowing and that the uphill was starting to drag me down. I hit mile 32 with a split just under 6:00 and somehow knew that it would probably be the last sub 6 of the race. Things were getting scary hard scary fast. I buckled in, though, and refused to let myself think about how far I had left. Rather, I solely focused on getting myself to the next mile, repeating to myself “Get to the next mile. Get to the next mile and you never have to see it ever again.”
Even though I knew I was slowing, I desperately fought to stay mentailly engaged. I had moment after moment where daggers of fear pierced through me...when what I was doing felt impossibly hard...the 15+ miles I had left to run an eternity. My mind periodically aroused itself from the trance I’d forced it into and screamed at me to stop. I was methodical about tamping this fear down, though, one attack at a time. Anyone who races knows what it’s like to have a moment in a race when you suddenly find your mind telling you to just stop or to pull back the intensity…to stop pressing, for just a moment, just to have an instant of blessed relief.
This voice is what I was wrestling with more than 3 hours in and almost 2 more to go. I couldn't fall back on being “almost there” as I have been able to in the races that developed my racing mental toolkit. So, time after time, I forced myself to tamp down the fear, re-engage in the moment, focus on the next mile split, and tell myself “Get to the next mile and you never have to see it ever again.”
Despite my best efforts, my pace began to slip. The long uphill and fatigue had taken its toll. After what seemed like a lifetime, I approached the tunnel. It was completely dark and absolutely terrifying to run through after 35 miles. With the tunnel pitch black, my vision already wavering some from the effort, and the ground underfoot slightly uneven, all I could do was weave slightly left to right...right to left...trying to keep the light at the end in the center of my field of view. I finally burst out into the light to see my mom and aunt waiting for me to cheer me on. I knew I had just topped out in climbing and worked through the hardest part of the race, but I was worried about what I had spent to get here. A short way down the trail was another bottle swap with Sam and Dustin and I did my best to re-conjure my earlier swagger now that I was finally headed downhill to the turnaround.
The flow didn’t return how I was hoping, but the downhill did allow me to click off a couple more decent mile splits. Just before the turnaround I looked down and thought to myself, “hell, I’ll take 6:12 at mile 38, even if it feels like shit.” Once I (finally) hit the turnaround, I once again checked my watch and began to brace for when I’d see Anthony come by. My earlier confidence had begun to waver since I’d had a few rough miles getting up the hill. Just holding 6 minute pace would have meant he had made up ground on me.
A minute passed and I felt relieved. A second minute passed and I felt excited. A third and fourth and fifth minute passed before I realized he was gone. It turns out he had run into some issues and dropped just after 26. I was a little deflated that I’d been working so hard to stay ahead of someone who wasn’t there but also now felt free to just get home however I could. After 4 hours, I was finally starting to let myself get excited about the prospect of finishing.
My uphill miles from the turnaround back to the aid station were pretty slow splits, but I was encouraged by how I had rebounded on the downhill the couple miles before. Sub 5 was slowly starting to slip away, but I wasn’t ready to totally give up on it yet. Hopefully the downhill from 41 on would be enough to get me back into the rhythm I’d need to get home in under 5 hours…
I once again swapped my bottle out with Sam and Dustin around mile 41. I told them I thought sub 5 may be out of the picture, but I’d be able to get home ok. Dustin yelled after me to take a moment to recover after the tunnel and then use the downhill to bring it home. He was second at the race last year and knew exactly how I was feeling: confident I’d be able to make it home in one piece, but wanting nothing more than for this torture to end. A measly 9 miles to go...
Once again, I stumbled through the tunnel, almost ran over some children on bikes I couldn’t see, and did my best to keep the light in my center of vision. I was actually a little relieved I had an excuse/reason to run a little slower for a stretch. Not tripping is far more important than keeping pace. I emerged to the other side and gathered my remaining mental and physical strength to make my last attack on holding on to a sub 5 performance. I still had a little time banked but needed something like 6:10 pace to get back on time.
I poured what I had into mile 43. My watch dinged - 6:23. I’d lost more time. I doubled down on mile 44. “Just Get to the next mile and you never have to see it ever again.” My watch dinged - 6:29. Even more time gone. I had done my best to find the speed I needed on the downhill, but that was the point I knew sub 5 had slipped away. The running I needed to pull off to get home in under 5 hours was simply impossible with those 44 hard miles already in my legs. I knew I’d get to the finish moderately well and I wouldn’t blow up, but 6 minute miles was now clearly out of the question. I turned the churning of my brain off and continued to attack the miles the best I could. The ding for 45 - 6:23.
A few times in this stretch, I had moments of what felt like clairvoyance. It was as if my mind came-to from beyond the race and I was utterly flabbergasted that I was still running. How could that loop around the parking lot nearly 5 hours ago possibly be the same run...the same life? I needed to get this thing done with.
Over this stretch, I had the advantage of running up on 100 mile runners going the same direction as me. While it wasn’t fair (in that they had well over 50 miles left to run, God bless them), having people to lock onto and pass made the last stretch of running with dead legs feel like “racing” still. I was pouring my heart into racing a pitiful 6:30 pace, but I needed to think of it as racing to keep even that going. Eventually I made it to my last bottle exchange at mile 47.2. The noise of the cheering broke through to me and got me excited for the finish. I swapped my bottle with Sam one last time and briefly felt a surge of adrenaline. It was short lived, though, and I quickly entered back into the mental space that had gotten me this far: “Just get to the next mile and you never have to see it ever again.” The 2 miles I had left to run still felt like an enormously big ask.
I dutifully trudged along, just working to get to the bridge I knew was a mile out from the finish. Painfully, slowly, I approached it. A (real or imagined, it was hard to tell) twinge of a cramp started to niggle my left hamstring. I reminded myself to, even now, sip some liquids. I could tell the cramp issue wasn’t anything of substance and allowed myself to start looking ahead for the finish….one last turn...the beep for 50...and finally, the line. The time was 5:03:06 for the course that’s USATF certified at 50.16 miles. My crew, who was so instrumental in making this race happen, was there waiting for me. I assume there were smiles all around, but the masks made it hard to tell.
The effort was the 4th fastest 50 miler ever run by an American and (according to some rumblings I’ve seen around) might be the fastest 50 miler ever run on an unpaved surface in North America. The end result wasn’t what I had set out to do, but I was and am damn proud of fighting for it. At moments during the race it felt as if it might never end. But nothing, not even the longest of races, lasts forever. Suffer well while you are able, because once the window closes there’s nothing you can do to change the outcome.
With the performance, I feel I have found my niche in this big, beautiful sport of ours. I clearly have a lot of learning and maturing left to do in this sport, but I’m excited for the journey ahead. I’m just getting started.